Monday, May 07, 2012

Book Review : Mr Phillips by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber 2000)

There are some books that one underestimates at one's peril.

Mr Phillips is a very ordinary man. An accountant, a London Commuter, a daydreamer about sex, he wakes up on Monday morning and readies himself for the office as he does every day. Except there is a difference today, as he was made redundant on Friday, and hasn't yet brought himself to tell his wife or family.

Over the course of the day, he meets his son for lunch, he chats with a pornographer, he sees a minor celebrity and gets involved in a bank robbery, reflecting all the time with his interior voice on the nature of his former job, his family, the memory or prospect of sex, or whether the probability of death between purchase and draw of a lottery ticket outweighs the probability of winning the jackpot.

Meanwhile, his life as an office-working, commuting wage-drone is dissected sliver by sliver, and is immediately recognisable to all who trudge up to London each day. "Like most experienced commuters, Mr Phillips has a variety of techniques for seizing somewhere to sit, sneaking around the side of the door and sliding into the jump-seats or barrelling down to the far end of the compartment, through the thickets of passengers, briefcases, newspapers, outstretched legs...The battle for a space prepared you for, was an allegory of the daily struggle. You could argue that those who fought their way to the seats were the people who needed them least. To them that hath shall be given, that was the deal." It is this juxtaposition of the quotidian with the interiorised faux philosophy which makes this book so funny and identifiable.

Mr Phillips is vaguely lustfully following D-list celebrity Clarissa Colingford into a bank, when crash-helmetted shotgun-wielding robbers burst in. As Mr Phillips lies on the floor he reminisces on his previous near-death experiences, mortality rates of lottery-ticket buyers and speculates of the reaction of his family to his death. And then he stands up.

Later, he helps an old lady with her shopping. It turns out that she is the wife of Mr Erith (as the rhyme goes, there are men in the village of Erith that nobody seeth or heareth), his fanatical old RE teacher. She shows Mr Phillips a book where several sayings, including one by Paul de Man, are embroidered. "Nothing, whether deed, word thought or text, ever happens in relation, positive or negative, to anything that precedes, follows or exists elsewhere, but only is a random act whose power, like the power of death, is due to the randomness of its occurrence." Has Mr Phillips' day been the confirmation or refutation of this and the other observations? Or is Lanchester subtly saying, pace de Man, that as a work of literature "Mr Phillips" means nothing, due to the irrelevance of human matters.

So is it trivial or profound? What is sure is that it is very readable, funny and full of blasts of recognition that this fortysomething office-worker found uncomfortably familiar.

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